Stuart Showalter has rediscovered the challenges and pleasures that have attracted finance experts to contract bridge for decades.

What do you dream about? For J. Stuart Showalter, JD, MFS, nighttime musings sometimes turn to complex riddles, codes, and special language—none of them healthcare related.

Showalter often finds himself dreaming about the game of bridge, his pastime and passion. The nocturnal problem solving is a break from the healthcare legal and financial issues that Showalter has focused on for most of his career. 

“Like the fields of law and finance, bridge has a special language,” Showalter says. ”The complex communications that occur at the bridge table are a bidding process, not unlike bidding on a business deal. But this bidding is conducted in a kind of code that lets you describe the cards you hold and helps you reach agreement about how many tricks you could win during play of the hand. If you and your partner understand each other’s bids, you are communicating well and can outplay your opponents.” 

Showalter, a lawyer and the author of The Law of Healthcare Administration (sixth ed.), is accustomed to using specialized language to communicate precise meanings. Following his semiretirement from a compliance career with various hospital systems, Showalter became contributing editor of HFMA’s Legal and Regulatory Forum, where his regular columns appear.

Showalter began playing bridge in high school, but drifted away from the game 20 years ago—until he passed a sign last year advertising daily games at a club in Balboa Park near his San Diego home. “I called the number, and that got me going again.”

Like healthcare executives do in the annual budgeting process, bridge players set precise targets at the outset of the game and then develop strategies to meet those goals. “And as in healthcare finance, if the goals are realistic and the plan is executed correctly, you come out with positive numbers,” he says. 

Also like the healthcare financial field, bridge has developed a range of innovations and trends over the past two decades that Showalter needed to absorb before he could compete effectively. “The modern game is more scientific, less based on intuition, than the game I learned as a kid,” he says, “and the need to effectively communicate shared objectives and strategies is as critical to success in bridge as it is to success in healthcare financial management.” 

“What often differs between bridge partners is their aggressiveness or timidity, and there are special bids that in certain circumstances mean one thing and in another circumstance can mean something else. You have to be on the same wavelength with your partner,” Showalter says.This type of communication was what Showalter recently found himself dreaming about. “I literally woke up in the middle of the night thinking about a problem my partner and I had with a particular hand,” he says. “I texted her that morning and said, ‘Here’s the deal; here’s what we should have done.’”

As Showalter’s playing ramped up to four days each week, he started joining “duplicate” bridge tournaments where different pairs of players take turns playing the same hands of cards to see who can optimize their results.

Showalter is far from the first finance professional attracted to the highly analytical numbers-based game. For example, many of the most prominent and highest-ranked players in the American Contract Bridge League are current and former Wall Street finance experts. Prominent bridge players include Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

“There’s no direct connection, but my guess is that finance people, being numbers-oriented, would likely be good bridge players,” he says. “I suspect that their temperament and their proclivities toward things financial and mathematical—it’s that kind of mind-set—would serve them well at the bridge table.”

His rediscovery of the game reminded Showalter of how accessible it remains for new players to join at any age. “At my club we have students as young as age 11, and one of the members—who plays well and often—will turn 100 this fall,” he says. Books and websites offer beginners’ guides, tutorials, and online games. And bridge clubs in nearly every city offer classes to fit various levels of expertise with the game. But the best way to learn bridge is by playing. Just show up at a club’s drop-in game, Showalter recommends.

“With the billions of combinations possible in a 52-card deck of bridge cards, trying to solve the puzzle of a particular deal can be frustrating, but it is always interesting and challenging,” he says.

Publication Date: Sunday, September 01, 2013

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